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Christopher Columbus

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Columbus, by Sebastiano de Piombo. Painted after the Admiral’s death.


   Christopher Columbus is the first to have sailed through the Sargasso Sea and the Bermuda Triangle. He is also the first to have reported unusual events.  But no matter how often they are recounted, they are seldom qualified. Ignorance of his logs has reduced these events to mere vague rumors,  and per usual they are greatly inaccurate.
   But thanks to Oliver Dunne and James Kelley,  the extracts from his log which were compiled shortly after his death by Fray Bartolome de Las Casas have been translated (The Diario of Columbus,  1989) and give a vivid picture of many unexpected events.
  Today it is often claimed that on the eve of discovering the New world,  Columbus saw a fire ball plunge into the sea before his vessels.  An “odd forecast” this has been called. Actually, the event happened only a few days after leaving the Canary Islands, far before the Sargasso Sea and Bermuda Triangle. He actually saw a light on the horizon on October 11, 1492, which does remain unexplained today. (In a 1979 documentary on Charles Berlitz’s popular book on the Bermuda Triangle all the elements of cheap tabloid fiction came together to showcase this as a host of blue-green glowing UFOs: the compasses rocked as they darted to and from the surface of the sea, and Italian actors with poorly dubbed English lines grunted and moaned.)
   But when traveling through the Sargasso Sea and Bermuda Triangle truly unusual things did happen.

Thursday 13 September 1492

On this day at the beginning of night the compasses northwested and in the morning they northeasted somewhat.

Monday September 17,

The pilots took the north, marking it [North Star], and found that the compasses northwested a full point [11 and one quarter degrees]; and the sailors were fearful and depressed and did not say why. The Admiral was aware of this and he ordered that the north again be marked when dawn came, and they found that the compasses were correct. The cause was that the North Star appears to move and not the compasses.

Sunday 23 September

Since the sea had been calm and smooth the men complained, saying that since in that region there were no rough seas [Sargasso Sea], it would never blow for a return to Spain. But later the sea rose high and without wind, which astonished them, because of which the Admiral says here that the high sea was very necessary for me, a sign which had not appeared except in the time of the Jews when they left Egypt and complained against Moses, who took them out of captivity.

Sunday, 30 September

Also the Admiral says here when night comes the compasses northwest one quarter, and when dawn comes they coincide with the North Star exactly.

  Scholarly debate has tried to account for the erratic compass readings. One theory suggests that during the night reading the compass was brought out on deck and set near a bucket of nails or some other metal object which deflected it— though this supposes that the seaman were stupid and did not check for any metal.
   Another theory, with less merit, was put forward and remains dominant to this day: that Columbus had merely encountered “magnetic variation,” that is, his compass declined appropriately to remain fixed on Magnetic North. As he was circumnavigating the world in a direction nobody had before, neither he nor the crew would have expected to see the compass decline toward the east.
   This unusual explanation even rated its place as the explanation in Hollywood’s 1948 motion picture on Columbus,  starring Fredric March as Columbus. To assuage his nervous crew,  he explains that ships sailing toward Cathay (China) experience a changing of their compass toward the west, so it seems when going toward the west that it is logical that the compass declines toward the east. In other word, they are trying to give a primitive explanation of compass variation.
   It is amazing that this was suggested. It is not possible to detect compass variation with a magnetic compass. After all,  the compass always points to north. Columbus’ navigator would have noticed nothing in the compass. Magnetic Variation can only be detected with other means today, such as charts,  which Columbus obviously did not have. It was when they took the North that they realized the compass did not jive with what they expected. Taking the North means waiting till dusk or dawn to detect the North Star (Polaris) and to measure its altitude above the horizon. Its altitude would give them an estimation of their latitude. It was then they noticed a mistake. But this was not magnetic variation or it would not have come and gone nightly as it did.
   It also would have happened as they sailed the Bahamas and Caribbean, and also on their way back to Spain months later. But it did not.  No notation is made in the log that they realized they set the compass near nails or anything. These were transient changes in the magnetism of the area,  perhaps hinging on temperature changes of evening and morning which caused the erratic reading at night and the correct one in the morning.
   Our compasses are too sophisticated today to be effected by minor changes, but Columbus’ was primitive enough to have registered something disturbing magnetism nearby.
   The sea “rising” without any reason might be explained that they encountered the North Equatorial Current while exiting the Sargasso Sea. Without this, it is hard to explain, except as undersea tremors.
   On the eve of discovery, there was yet another unknown event: a light was seen in the distance; it rose and dropped and then disappeared. Some try to explain this as torch lights on the beach of an island or that native fishing parties with torches were some miles off the island. It is a bone of contention today as Columbus landfall scholars try and determine just what Bahamanian Island he actually landed at. This “light” has been used to try to calculate his distance from any land. But it usually turns out he was too far to have seen any light on land— hence it must be fishermen far out trying to get their evening catch or a light on some other islet off the main island (thus helping to pinpoint where the true San Salvador might be).  Scholars note that Columbus never discovered the sources after landing on San Salvador (whatever island that may be today).  In modern vernacular, perhaps, Columbus would have eventually opted to have called it a “weird light” as many others in the Bahamas have done with more modern sightings of the same. 
   All of this did happen in the Triangle. They have never been explained and remain truly odd forecasts before the discovery of the New World and of the unusual events still being seen in the Bermuda Triangle.